Thomas Jefferson, who lived for some time at Seventh and Market streets right here in our city, once said, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”
This week we spoke to the delightful Joseph Liana, landscape designer and owner of UrbanGreen, about his business and why his nursery was covered with four-leaf clovers on the day he was born.
PGN: So, what was little Joey like? JL: Always outside, playing in the yard. Helping my mom with the garden and my dad with the lawn. Very imaginative. I didn’t have to have toys: I invented an imaginary world of my own. [Laughs.] My little fictitious life.
PGN: Was it a city garden? JL: No, I grew up in North Jersey, Plainfield area.
PGN: Any siblings? JL: I have an older sister. She’s four years older than me.
PGN: And what was your relationship with your sister? JL: Good, she was my role model in a way. And also my protector. She protected me from older kids in the playground when I needed it. Saved me a few times!
PGN: Did you have a stuffed animal or blanket? JL: I did. I had a little stuffed dog. A beagle. I especially loved it because my aunt had several beagles. I still have it to this day.
PGN: What was his name? JL: His name? [Laughs.] Stubby, because he was this squat little dog.
PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up? JL: I was always into artistic things. I liked drawing and I guess that, even though I was too young to even know the term “artist,” I knew that’s what I’d do for life. But I also really enjoyed helping my mom with her vegetable garden and playing in the dirt.
PGN: Growing her own vegetables — was your mom a good cook? JL: Oh yeah, typical Italian mom cooking great things in the kitchen. I grew up in a predominantly Italian and Polish area and everyone had gardens.
PGN: So why was your nursery covered in green clovers? JL: I was born on St. Patrick’s Day! PGN: What’s the best thing about having a holiday birthday? JL: I never plan anything on my birthday because everyone’s going out anyway and there are plenty of parties to choose from. So we just go out with some friends and drink green beer and that’s just kinda how I do my birthday.
PGN: What was the best one? JL: I guess it’s cliché to say my 21st, but that was a good one. I was in New York and when the whole bar found out it was my 21st birthday, on St Patrick’s Day, everyone went crazy!
PGN: What brought you to Philadelphia? JL: I went to Temple to study landscape architecture. It’s funny, I went to Ambler campus, so I never really ventured downtown. Philadelphia was like this foreign city to me even though I chose Temple because I wanted to be near an urban environment — but New York was too expensive. I narrowed it down to Philadelphia or Jacksonville, Fla. Those were my two choices! Philly was closer to home and was more along the lines of what I knew, so I chose Philly and I love it.
PGN: Probably a good choice for you: I believe we are the greenest city in the country. JL: I’m doing my part!
PGN: What was a fun project you’ve worked on? JL: Oh my, I love all my projects. Right now we’re building a rooftop zen garden. It’s great, just being up there, above the city and seeing the beautiful view is really cool. And this is the first project I’m doing with Michael, who is my partner.
PGN: In business or life? JL: Both! We’ve been dating for a while and he just came on with the company in September. It makes it a lot of fun to have him with me.
PGN: How did you meet? JL: He was looking for a career change and had an interest in what I do. We started talking and found we had even more in common than our love of plants.
PGN: Tell me something great about him? JL: Ay yay, it would take an hour. I guess he’s the most compassionate person I’ve ever met.
PGN: What’s a good green tip? JL: Well, one tip we have on our website is how to make a chalkboard grocery list. To do this, simply go to any local hardware store and pick up chalkboard paint, painter’s tape and a medium-sized regular paintbrush. Using the painter’s tape, mark where you want your chalkboard. Paint inside the area with a coat of the chalkboard paint. Let dry for about three days, then prepare the surface by rubbing the side of a piece of chalk over the entire area. Erase it and it’s ready to use. Instead of wasting paper, after you write your list on the board, take a picture of it with your camera phone and take it to the store with you.
PGN: I saw that one. It’s good, but it’s time to put a new one up! JL: [Laughs.] I know! That’s one of the things we need to do is update the website. It’s a double-edged sword: Right now, we can’t update it because business is doing so well we don’t have the time to do some of the little things like that. We’re working on it, but it’s hard to complain when things are going so well. We’re doing an interior job today where we’re using recycled cans as planters, making the planters themselves an art exhibit in the kitchen. They’ll use the cans to grow fresh fruit and herbs inside the house. We’ll probably put some tips on using recycled goods for planters.
PGN: What’s a plant that grows well in Philadelphia? JL: There are so many, but I would say — and I really love these — something called a Zelkova tree. They’ve been planting them around the city and they work really well. They’re pretty and have a beautiful shape and they’re able to handle the pollution and all the stuff that comes with an urban environment.
PGN: I have all these seeds that I’ve been given at the Flower Show and home shows, etc. Some of them are years old: How long do seeds last? JL: Surprisingly, they’re probably still viable. What you might have to do is put them between a folded towel and gently hit them with a small hammer or meat tenderizer, very gently, just enough to crack the outer shell open a little. That should allow them to germinate. Most seeds can last for years, some decades and even centuries. They’ll find seeds quite often from decades ago and find that they’re still viable.
PGN: Looking at the news today with the tornadoes in the Midwest and floods elsewhere, what do you think about climate change? JL: It’s interesting, when you work outside like I do, you notice things all the time — weather becomes second nature to you. You can smell the rain in the air and notice subtle changes daily. In the plant world, it’s amazing. I’ve been doing design for about 16 years and there are plants that you’re able to grow up north now, that you weren’t able to a decade ago. There’s definitely a change — a warming trend — that’s noticeable.
PGN: What does your garden look like? JL: I live in South Philly so I have the typical concrete paths that I’ve transformed into a little jungle. I have a lot of rescue plants that people have discarded and I’ve nursed them back to health, so I have a hodgepodge of plants.
PGN: Changing topics, when did you first start to realize you were gay? JL: I think when I was in the seventh grade. I noticed that the other boys were interested in the girls and I wasn’t. I came out to my sister when I was 21 and the rest of the family followed. It was a little scary, coming from an Italian Catholic family, but it went fairly well. There was a little time needed to adjust. People have hopes and dreams of what they’ve envisioned for you, and that’s the hardest part that they need time to process.
PGN: Working with flowers wasn’t a giveaway? JL: [Laughs.] No, I think it was the skits that we used to do! My sister was older and taller, so she often played the male role. Oh gosh, she’s going to kill me for this ... She would put my dad’s cowboy boots and hat on and be the guy and I was smaller so I was left to play the more feminine role. Oh, geez Louise, be nice when you write this!
PGN: [Laughs.] Hey, we’ve all been there! I had two brothers so I had to be a WWE wrestling character — before they had the women’s division. What’s your favorite conversation piece in your house? JL: I have a bust of an African-American woman that I picked up on a road trip. I love to travel and for my last big hurrah before I opened the business, I went to seven different cities. I was in a town in Kentucky that had all these beauty salons dating back to the ’50s and ’60s. They were closed but an antique shop nearby had a lot of their stuff for sale. There was a bust of this beautiful woman with an amazing afro, gold hoop earrings and bright red lipstick and I had to have her. There was beauty, humor and nostalgia all rolled into one. She’s well-known now and talked about quite a bit.
PGN: Does she have a name? JL: Carol! A friend of mine named her and it just fits. I’ll run into people or be on a social-networking site and people will ask me about Carol. She’s great fun.
PGN: If you could walk into any painting and experience the moment, which one would it be? JL: That’s easy. “Guernica” by Picasso. I have part of it tattooed on my arm.
PGN: Ever play any sports? JL: I did. I played soccer, basketball and baseball, but soccer was always my favorite. I like the teamwork it required and the fact that there was so much movement. You were constantly running, while in baseball, you were just standing around for most of the game. I was good at basketball but when I didn’t make the high-school team, my dreams were crushed. [Laughs.] Another dream that fell by the wayside.
PGN: A best or worst moment in sports? JL: My best was when I scored five goals in one soccer game, and the worst was when my coach purposely threw a baseball at me. He asked me earlier, “Have I ever hit you with a ball?” I said no and, later that day, I got nailed with a ball. He acted like it was an accident [laughs], but the timing was a little suspicious after that question! I was 9 and it was definitely not fun.
PGN: Tell me a little about your road trip. JL: When Myspace was still really popular, I made a lot of friends all over the country. I’d been talking online to several of them for years, and decided to take a trip and meet some of them. I got to experience different cities and different environments and meet all sorts of people. I love to travel: It’s my favorite thing to do.
PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled? JL: Seoul, South Korea. I was there in ’89.
PGN: What was memorable about the trip? JL: You know, it was the first time I’d ever been in an environment where I could not physically blend in. Being an American, you really stood out. In Europe, even being foreign, you could still blend in somewhat.
PGN: What was one of the most difficult parts of getting the business started? JL: I started the company on a whim, basically because someone took away my job and I decided that if I was going to have the pressure of losing a job, I wanted it to be solely on myself. I started UrbanGreen with $21 in my bank account. That was the most difficult part, you learn something new every day and not always the easy way. But it’s always a growing experience and so it’s difficult but fun. I try to learn from past mistakes and move forward.
PGN: As a word of caution for a new business owner, what was one of the blunders you made? JL: I didn’t spend the money for a good accountant. I made the mistake of just picking someone with the best price and found you get what you pay for. It took me a while to get out of that. And make sure to get good referrals!
PGN: How long have you been in business? JL: I started in July 2008. We’ve hung in there and this year is turning out to be a great year already. I’m really excited about it.
PGN: What’s the next step? JL: Further building our reputation. We get a lot of referrals and it’s nice to know that people enjoyed our work enough to tell other people about us. It’s nice because there’s a kind of continuity, going to someone’s house and feeling you already know them because you worked on their sister’s or cousin’s house.
PGN: What would I tell people you do? JL: We do everything from one person who I helped with an 8-inch potted plant to the whole-roof garden we’re working on. I don’t mind doing the small stuff, window boxes, etc. Sometimes they can be just as interesting as a big project — you have a little more room to get creative. If it’s green, we’ll do it!